Archive for April 3rd, 2007|Daily archive page

Death by Powerpoint II

(second in a short series of discussions on this technology).

This posting was taken substantially from an email interview which I recently gave to my friend Debra Lane.

When I moved into Higher Education there were still a lot of staff using OHP’s for their lectures.  However in the interview for this job I used PowerPoint, and have continued to do so since.  There was just one module that I taught using OHP’s, as the room didn’t have projection technology.  I found it very difficult and restrictive, and did not enjoy the experience.  In the four years I’ve been here there has been investment in the projection equipment needed in every room.  Even the smallest tutorial room in our faculty, which can only seat six people, now has an LCD/plasma screen and a small lecturn to present information.

There are benefits to using PowerPoint.  The most immediate benefit is that students can access the slides after the lecture, through posting onto our virtual learning environment (moodle), or in a worst case scenario via email.  In addition, I always intend to use much more graphics and animation in the slides.  I also use the number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation as a guideline to the length of time my lecture will take.  Assuming no breaks for activites, 30 slides will take about an hour of lecturing time.  This is quite a high rate – there are some academics who take pride in being able to talk for hours on just a couple of slides.

But have any of the benefits hoped for been realised?  Students do access the slides outside the lecture, and frequently take this as a substitute for attending the classes – this has caused real problems with regards to attendance.  We try to encourage students to attend by explaining that it may only take five minutes to read the slides, but the lecture will take an hour.  For one module this semester I have not made the slides available (yet) electronically, and attendance has been higher, though this is for a group of students who are generally seen as ‘high flyers’.

I do use more graphics, and clip art, though the ‘joke’ or humour that I see rarely transmits itself to the students.  I long ago gave up on using Dilbert cartoons, as students simply didn’t understand the jokes.  Animation-wise, I’ve found this doesn’t work well with my students, as it assumes that they are looking at the screen when the animation takes place.  I may pose a question, then ‘reveal’ the answer, but even that has died off in recent lectures.  The time taken in PowerPoint to create animations is also tortuous.

Finally, regarding lecture timing, this does seem to work well, though students also pick up on this…  I found that the worst thing to do is to put a ‘summary’ or ‘next week’ slide up… students invariably see this as the trigger to pack their backs, turn on their mobiles, or leave.  It can frequently come as a surprise to the student (and occasionally the tutor!) to see “end of slide show” and the blank screen.

Looking at the negative consequences, failure of the technology has caused problems in the past.. the PC/projector/laptop not working, and with over a hundred students staring at you.  In that instance I was fortunate that I had printed all the slides as handouts, which I don’t usually do (it makes for very lazy student).  Now however I’m a more confident lecturer, and I would either laugh this off, or change the learning experience somehow.  There are also issues regarding access to learning materials by disabled students.  Many of the screen readers for visually impaired students do not work well with PowerPoint.  Even if they do work, you need to think carefully about slide layout and the use of images, for example putting a full stop at the end of sentences so that the screen reader pauses, and putting ‘alternative’ tags on images.

In summary, I wouldn’t use non-electronic presentation means if I could possibly avoid it.  For the very few academics who still cling to OHP’s?  I think if they’ve not changed by now they are unlikely to.  I wouldn’t see myself as an evangelist (there are very few things that I get that excited about), but I would recommend PowerPoint (or it’s Open Source/Apple equivalents) to anyone.